Skip to comments.God and geeks: Vatican astronomer hunts for faith in Silicon Valley
Posted on 11/03/2007 7:16:23 AM PDT by NYer
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Engineers, scientists, and computer whizzes study or manipulate nature and machines to find sound, logical solutions to nagging questions and everyday problems.
But if hard empirical evidence is what makes a techie brain tick, then how is he or she able to justify or believe in something as scientifically unprovable as God or as mind-boggling as transubstantiation?
Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, a self-described techie and Vatican astronomer, argues in a new book that a nerd is not necessarily a nihilist, and geeks can and do believe in God.
In "God's Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion," he shows that atheism is actually very rare among men and women scientists.
He told Catholic News Service "the more common stance is to be agnostic -- they don't want to make a claim one way or another, but really what they're shy about is belonging to an organized church."
Brother Consolmagno said some hold preconceived, mistaken notions that the people they'll find in the pews might be intellectually inferior or even "repellent."
The Jesuit astronomer said, "One fellow put it to me very bluntly, 'I don't mind God, it's his fan club I could do without.'"
He said the idea for his fifth book came after some techie friends asked him to explain the "nuts and bolts of how" to believe in a particular religious creed.
These friends were interested in joining a church, and they were looking for "intellectual support" and help in explaining certain aspects of the Catholic faith, he said.
He soon realized techies look at religion differently than most folks and likewise have different needs when it comes to pastoral care and outreach.
So two years ago, Brother Consolmagno bade a temporary farewell to his telescopes and went from gazing at the heavens to peering into fellow techies' hearts and souls.
"The techies, they're my tribe. I'm one of them and I want us to be better understood by the church," the planetary scientist explained.
The discoveries he made from a two-month journey traveling up and down U.S. Highway 101 in California's Silicon Valley became the core of his new book.
He interviewed 100 "hard-nosed, rational, dyed-in-the-wool techies" and asked them the reasons they went to church, what they did and didn't get out of church, and why they belonged to one faith community and not another.
He said the answers were as varied as one would find in the general population, but that several unique characteristics stuck out.
For example, skeptics weren't saying, "Prove to me God exists," but had more pragmatic concerns like "whether he exists or not, why should I believe? Why should I care and what does it get me?"
Also, people in the world of science tend to be "rule followers" and see the church as a book of rules, he said.
In fact, "a very common fallacy" among techies, he said, is believing salvation is the result of following the rules.
In their work world, techies see that "if I follow the rules then the program should run, but religion doesn't work that way," said Brother Consolmagno.
He also got the feeling that a lot techies weren't exactly convinced they could ever know "the truth."
He said one family had actually been "church shopping" and was ruling out churches that were "obviously wrong."
He said this family wasn't looking for proof of which religious community was right, they just wanted one that "had a greater chance of being correct," like one that has "existed over a long period of time and in a lot of different cultures."
The Vatican astronomer said the biggest surprise to come out of his research was that, for techies in general, the biggest motivation to belong to a church was the search for community.
Being part of a community was really important, he said, "in part because community is something a lot of them didn't have growing up; when you're the geek nobody likes you. But also because techies work better in community, because most scientists and engineers do their work as a team."
Many in the tech world aren't going to church to find the truth, he said, "because by the time you're in your 30s or 40s you've pretty much decided what the truth is. The reason they go to church is for tech support; it's once-a-week scheduled maintenance," he said.
But in some churches, that community support may be lacking, especially if the techie individual is unmarried or far from family.
"The sort of alienation that comes from a techie life is something a parish ought to be addressing, and yet most parishes don't even recognize the problem," he said.
Parishioners with science backgrounds should be more vocal about their interests and could try starting up an astronomy, computer, or science fiction club, he suggested.
When asked how he explains to scientists complex facets of Catholicism, such as transubstantiation -- that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist -- Brother Consolmagno said he first explains what the statements actually mean.
"One of the problems that techies have is they don't necessarily understand that words do have power. But if you think of words like, 'Yes, I'll marry you,' or 'You've just been accepted to MIT,' these words change reality," he explained.
He follows that with the analogy of a small child getting a birthday cake.
"Why is the birthday cake different from any other cake? It has to be on your birthday, it has to be brought by mom" and it has to have all the special details and ceremonies associated with it that make it different from every other cake and "a little kid understands it really is different," he said.
"I'm not saying the Eucharist is a birthday cake," he said, "but it shows the power of words and that words do change reality."
The power of words ..... PING! :-)
very interesting analogy. So, THAT’S why we can’t find an appropriate church?
Even scientists, when they come to the end of their studies, come up empty and wondering.
Some come to Christ; some don’t.
There is no other answer!
My father traveled all over war torn Europe as an MP escorting dignitaries or high value prisoners. Being a devote Catholic he always did his best to attend Mass, wherever he went he was instantly welcomed into the community and what little they had they shared gladly. He continued the tradition of visiting other parishes on our family vacations (mostly camping trips) and I noticed the same kind of instant welcome home feeling as we greeted other families leaving after Mass. I am doing the same with my family now and the strong feeling of being home has never diminished. Its great to know that I can travel and never leave home
My Protestant friend calls the Catholic Church the McDonalds of churches. I dont know if that is a compliment but I find that its the same Jesus at each parish I visit and I never leave hungry.
Thanks for the post NYer , I am a techie also but I have been blessed (thru the pervasiveness of remote control and DSL) with not having to travel much in my last few jobs.
I believe that this is one of the reasons that "young earth" theory is being sustained in so many churches as a trick of Satan to undermine the credibility of the faith, and why Christoph Schonborn's recent book, "Chance or Purpose" is so important.
You should ask him!
Its great to know that I can travel and never leave home.
On your travels, you may want to consider visiting some of the Eastern Catholic Churches. Although it is not widely known in our Western world, the Catholic Church is actually a communion of Churches. According to the Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, the Catholic Church is understood to be "a corporate body of Churches," united with the Pope of Rome, who serves as the guardian of unity (LG, no. 23). At present there are 22 Churches that comprise the Catholic Church. The new Code of Canon Law, promulgated by Pope John Paul II, uses the phrase "autonomous ritual Churches" to describe these various Churches (canon 112). Each Church has its own hierarchy, spirituality, and theological perspective. Because of the particularities of history, there is only one Western Catholic Church, while there are 21 Eastern Catholic Churches. The Western Church, known officially as the Latin Church, is the largest of the Catholic Churches. It is immediately subject to the Roman Pontiff as Patriarch of the West. The Eastern Catholic Churches are each led by a Patriarch, Major Archbishop, or Metropolitan, who governs their Church together with a synod of bishops. Through the Congregation for Oriental Churches, the Roman Pontiff works to assure the health and well-being of the Eastern Catholic Churches.
While this diversity within the one Catholic Church can appear confusing at first, it in no way compromises the Church's unity. In a certain sense, it is a reflection of the mystery of the Trinity. Just as God is three Persons, yet one God, so the Church is 22 Churches, yet one Church.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes this nicely:
"From the beginning, this one Church has been marked by a great diversity which comes from both the variety of God's gifts and the diversity of those who receive them... Holding a rightful place in the communion of the Church there are also particular Churches that retain their own traditions. The great richness of such diversity is not opposed to the Church's unity" (CCC no. 814).
Although there are 22 Churches, there are only eight "Rites" that are used among them. A Rite is a "liturgical, theological, spiritual and disciplinary patrimony," (Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 28). "Rite" best refers to the liturgical and disciplinary traditions used in celebrating the sacraments. Many Eastern Catholic Churches use the same Rite, although they are distinct autonomous Churches. For example, the Ukrainian Catholic Church and the Melkite Catholic Church are distinct Churches with their own hierarchies. Yet they both use the Byzantine Rite.
To learn more about the "two lungs" of the Catholic Church, visit this link:
The Vatican II Council declared that "all should realize it is of supreme importance to understand, venerate, preserve, and foster the exceedingly rich liturgical and spiritual heritage of the Eastern churches, in order faithfully to preserve the fullness of Christian tradition" (Unitatis Redintegrato, 15).
A Roman rite Catholic may attend any Eastern Catholic Liturgy and fulfill his of her obligations at any Eastern Catholic Parish. A Roman rite Catholic may join any Eastern Catholic Parish and receive any sacrament from an Eastern Catholic priest, since all belong to the Catholic Church as a whole. I am a Roman Catholic practicing my faith at a Maronite Catholic Church. Like the Chaldeans, the Maronites retain Aramaic for the Consecration. It is as close as one comes to being at the Last Supper.
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Right. I am married to a Silicon Valley technie and he is entranced by the idea that someday God will explain all those scientific mysteries and he will finally know the actual way things work. For him, curiosity, in part, drives him to be as close to the Lord as possible.
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